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BY PHILLIP WILLIAMS

Correspondent

GILMER–Upshur County Commissioners Court, which is scheduled to approve the property tax rate and budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year Friday, received no public comment last Thursday at a hearing on its proposals to retain the current rate of 59.50 cents per $100 valuation, and set an approximately $17 million budget.

Thursday marked the court’s second and final public hearing on the proposals before it sets the tax rate and budget at a 9 a.m. meeting this Friday at the county courthouse. County Judge Dean Fowler said the proposed budget is about the same as the current one.

Besides setting the tax rate–all of which would go for maintenance and operations since the county has no debt–the court will consider changing and renewing the health insurance plan for county employees Friday.

Commissioners have been wrestling with a controversial proposal to eliminate employees’ spouses who are age 65 or older from insurance coverage. (Fowler, whose wife works for the insurance group that is the broker for the county’s health insurance plan, has not sat in on discussions of the issue in order to avoid a conflict of interest).

On Thursday, after a discussion involving some county officials and a representative of the insurance firm, the court approved Pct. 2 Commissioner Don Gross’ motion to table any changes in the insurance plan until this Friday.

The motion also included a provision that HealthFirst, the third-party administrator which receives, assesses and pays claims under the plan, release data for the court’s and public’s study. The court approved it 4-0 with Fowler having left the meeting before the discussion opened.

Besides considering insurance, the court will also consider any changes to the proposed budget Friday. When District Clerk Karen Bunn asked the court Thursday if the proposed budget contained any pay raises for personnel, she received no reply.

Earlier in the meeting, she told the court that workers in her office “cannot take another hit” on insurance coverage and that county workers cannot afford to pay for outside insurance for their spouses who are 65 or older.

County Road Administrator Andy Jordan read a letter from a group of county employees suggesting ways the county could save money on health insurance.

In other business Thursday, the court held a 51-minute joint meeting with the Gilmer City Council to hear representatives of the engineering consulting firm Atkins and TxDOT discuss causes and possible solutions to traffic congestion in the city on U.S. 271–including the possibility of building a loop to relieve it..

County Judge Dean Fowler said that if a loop was built, construction would start in 20 years. Joe Shalkowski, an Atkins project manager, said that while “the ultimate solution might be a relief route,” there might be “interim solutions.”

Shalkowski said his firm would study the timing of traffic lights as one potential remedy.

Also last Thursday, the court:

j–amended the county “sick pool” policy to define what constitutes a “catastrophic illness.”

–approved paying off all accrued new holiday hours, which Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka said totaled about $116,000. He said the county would pay more if it waited till later.

–adopted a policy declaring that someone’s personal vehicle is the only place he/she can use tobacco on county property.